Sundance 2016: The Best of the Fest - 5 Features + 5 Documentaries
by Alex Billington
February 1, 2016
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to an end and to put a wrap on things and finalize our nearly two weeks of coverage, it's time to present our Best of the Fest list. This year it was only me (Alex) covering Sundance for FirstShowing, so I decided to simply reveal my own 5 favorite feature films and 5 favorite documentaries. There are always a couple of films that I didn't have time to see (The Intervention, Eyes of My Mother) that seem to be getting great buzz, just can't make it to everything. But I am very happy to say that I ended up seeing amazing films at Sundance this year that will be on my mind for a while. At least one (or maybe two) of these will end up on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. Let's get right into it.
While I saw many films that I liked (my full list of 39 here), there were quite a few I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are my favorite films from this year's festival that I did get to see.
Alex's Top 5 Favorite /Sundance 2016/ Feature Films:
The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
THIS FILM! Such a tremendous, unforgettable directorial debut telling a powerful story. A triumph in so many ways. Yes, it's as good as everyone is saying, easily one of the best of the festival. Nate Parker is an extremely intelligent, talented storyteller who not only writes and directs, but also stars in this film telling the real-life story of Nat Turner, a slave who lead an uprising in the 1800s in Virginia. The performances by everyone in the film are exceptional. It spends much more time building up to the revolt than showing what happens, and that's not a problem. By the end I was completely floored, and I jumped to my feet to give it a standing ovation (along with everyone else) as soon as the credits started rolling. This is one of the films we'll be hearing about all year long and it definitely deserves attention and accolades. Read my full review.
Directed by Matt Ross
I totally fell for this film. This is me. The film and the characters really connected with me a very deep way. I've never seen a film like it (the comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine are way, way off). Viggo Mortensen is extraordinary in a very complex, intelligent role as a loving father of six kids that he's raising completely independent of a corporate, capitalistic society. As much as that seems like it could be annoying, it's not. This film is full of so much life and love; it's brilliant, it's uplifting, it's encouraging, it's warm, it's touching, it's funny, it's endearing. Go in with an open mind, an open heart, and you'll leave as inspired and enlivened as I was. I loved everything about this film, not a single complaint, it's near perfect. Read my full review.
Directed by John Carney
Get up and dance! Sing Street is just wonderful. Once director John Carney has outdone himself, making a movie that is inspiring and exciting and will make you want to dance in the theater while you're watching it. The film is set in the 80's and not only uses some fun music from that era, but also features original songs written for the characters in the story and they're amazing. There is one "fantasy sequence" near the end where they're playing to a full crowd at their school and it's one of only times a film has perfectly captured the feelings and thoughts you have when listening to great music. It left me in such a great mood when I saw it, and I was humming the songs the rest of the night. Can't wait to get the soundtrack. Read my full review.
Manchester by the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
This is one of the most complex, layered films from Sundance that stands out for many reasons. Kenneth Lonergan is a masterful filmmaker and he will hopefully be earning accolades for this feature at the end of the year. Casey Affleck gives one of the best performances at the festival in a very challenging role as a depressed, heartbroken man trying to do his best and care for the people he loves while dealing with his own demons. Young actor Lucas Hedges is just as impressive and goes toe-to-toe with Affleck. This is one film many other critics are raving about, and I'm glad I caught it as well, as it truly is an example of masterful storytelling. The way the script is structured and the way the story unfolds (in two timelines) is remarkable.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Taika rules! This is one of the few Sundance 2016 films that had me laughing my ass off, however it's also a very sweet, empowering, entertaining adventure into the New Zealand bush. During the Q&A, Taika jokingly described it as like The Revenant but made without any money. On one hand it's a survival story, when Ricky (played by Julian Dennison) and Uncle Hec (played by Sam Neill), go on the run into the wild to escape the crazy Child Services lady. On the other hand, it's a story about finding your place (and learning to love others) even if that place doesn't seem right to the rest of society. The performances are great, but it's just a fun movie filled with so many moments that will have you smiling and laughing. Read my full review.
More favorites worth mentioning: Chad Hartigan's Morris From America, Richard Tanne's Southside With You, Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte's As You Are, Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room.
Alex's Top 5 Favorite /Sundance 2016/ Documentaries:
Holy sh*t! This year's "you have to see this!" documentary. Tickled is about a lovable, amusing journalist from New Zealand (named David Farrier) who decides to look into who exactly is behind an "endurance tickling competition" video he finds online. He gets sucked down a rabbit hole of madness, as the people behind the tickling videos threaten him and try to stop the documentary from even being finished. It's nuts! I was in shock half of the film, as every new scene turns into another "holy sh*t" moment as things just seem to get crazier and crazier. After writing a review, I was sent an email (from someone defending the people in the film), which means I've been looped into this crazy story as well. It's a must see. Read my full review.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
A wonderful, charming, uplifting documentary about an austic boy named Owen Suskind who learns how to communicate and connect with the world through animated Disney movies. At age 3 he was diagnosed with autism and stopped talking, and it's only when he started watching Disney movies that he was able to figure out how to start speaking again. The doc features an magnificent score and amazing animation made just for the film, featuring Owen and his bevy of sidekick characters battling evil. At Sundance last year, we flipped for the documentary How to Dance in Ohio about austic kids going to a prom. While this doc is entirely different, it's another doc on autism showing how films changed one boy's life. Read my full review.
The Eagle Huntress
Directed by Otto Bell
This doc is AMAZING! It's packed with stunning cinematography, incredible footage in Mongolia that often makes you stop and wonder "how the heck did they get that shot?" The Eagle Huntress is about the first ever "Eagle Huntress" in history, a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan who trains with her father to become an Eagle Hunter in Mongolia (they capture and raise a young Golden Eagle to perch on their arm and hunt foxes in the mountains with them). Traditionally, this is something only the men in this region have done for generations. However, she wants to take on the challenge and kills it at the annual tournament. Anything boys can do, girls can do better. This was the last film I screened and instantly became one of my favorites.
Directed by Dawn Porter
A very tender, intimate look at how politics is trumping medicine. Trapped is about the never-ending laws imposed on abortion providers, profiling a few of the only remaining doctors in Texas/Mississippi/Alabama that still perform abortions despite the pushback. Following in the footsteps of After Tiller (another excellent Sundance documentary about abortion providers), the film shows just how genuine and caring and honest abortion providers are. So many of them are just trying to help others, and they resist the harsh criticism and political fallout because they know what they're doing is right. Director Dawn Porter handles this film with care, opening up the discussion in a level-headed way. It doesn't try to condemn anyone, but rather focuses on how good people are encountering terrible resistance. I hope this doc helps in some way.
Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami
Go Sonita! This documentary is about a lively, talented Afghani girl living in Iran named Sonita. Her way of speaking out against the oppressive society she lives in is by rapping, but neither country allows women to sing at all. Things get worse when her family wants to bring her home so they can sell her as a bride to make money in order for her brother to buy his bride, which is the tradition in her country. She keeps fighting back, and composes rap songs that talk about this and many other issues. It's awesome to learn about her and follow her story, which for most of the film seems to be hopeless, until the filmmakers get involved and help her out at the last minute. It's an intriguing decision worth discussing, but it made a difference because this was what she really needed for her big break. Another inspiring, empowering story captured superbly.
To find all of Alex's Sundance 2016 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
For other Sundance 2016 best of the fest lists mentioning more films we didn't see, check out: The Film Stage's 15 Best Films at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, SlashFilm's Best Films of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Movies.com's The Sundance Movies That Need To Be On Your Radar, The Verge's Best Films of Sundance 2016 and Buzzfeed's 23 Movies From Sundance You Need To Know About. This isn't the only list! There are many excellent films from this year that are worth seeing when they come to your neighborhood.
You can find all our Sundance 2016 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Alex's 10th year in a row back to Park City to see films. Read the full recap.